Managing grade inflation and demonstrating student improvement

​In September 2017 the English Universities Minister Jo Johnson challenged university leaders to address the record number of first-class degrees being awarded to students across the UK, highlighting the potential risk to the public's confidence in academic standards.

Since then, Universities UK has been working with the Quality Assurance Agency (QAA), GuildHE and the UK Standing Committee for Quality Assessment (UKSCQA) to explore how to address these concerns.

The first element of this work responds to the specific request to clarify how the sector defines degree classifications. This work is on course to produce a reference document by September, and this will aid the transparency and consistency of approaches to degree classification and standards across the sector. The work is founded on the view that students should be assessed against clear criteria rather than setting quotas for the number of students who can achieve a 1st or 2.1. Quotas can demotivate students and devalue the level of knowledge gained over the course of their studies.

The reference document is intended as a practical tool to aid academic practice and to improve understanding of the classification system, including among employers. The reference point will also be useful for new providers who gain degree awarding powers without prior validation by an existing degree body, and the established academic frameworks that come with this relationship. However, it will still be essential for universities to set and maintain their own academic standards, rather than simply marking against an off-the-shelf set of criteria.

The reference point will not be an answer to the historic trend of rising attainment on its own. Our work is taking a deeper look at the evidence and drivers behind the trends. This is particularly relevant as the Office for Students (OfS) now expects English universities to protect the value of qualifications while also ensuring all students achieve good outcomes. It will be important for autonomous institutions to understand, isolate and address inflationary practices while demonstrating the success of their students, including in the Teaching Excellent Framework.

The work illustrates the need to clarify what is meant by inflation and improvement. In some ways inflation is the easier problem – stopping practices that lower the standard that students are assessed against. These practices can include undermining grade boundary conventions through generous rules for borderline cases or discounting low grades. More complex are the inevitable variations in academic judgement, but this is where internal and external moderation by academics, allied to professional development, are at the heart of academic standards. The reference point can also play a useful role to help benchmark practice in these areas.

Demonstrating and responding to student improvement is the more fundamental challenge for academic standards. Some may not be convinced that improvements are genuine but there has been more investment into teaching and support for students. It would be a major surprise and a disappointment if these inputs had not positively influenced student attainment. In England this will be an issue as the OfS rightly applies pressure on the sector to close gaps in achievement between students from different ethnic backgrounds.

Our work is exploring how to understand the balance between inflation and improvement to guide effective targeted and long-term action. However, dealing with the long-term trend of student improvement will not be an easy task and it is rightly the subject of a healthy debate about the best course of action. As illustrated in this blog one option is to adjust standards to keep up with increasingly successful students in a way that is transparent and consistent, either through criteria or quotas. The other option is to find more headroom in the classification structure, either by reinvigorating the 2.2 and 3rd classifications in the eyes of employers or bringing in a new classification above the 1st. Both options are inherently complex in an increasingly diverse, competitive and a fundamentally autonomous sector.

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Paul Turner
Paul Turner says:
4 June 2018 at 09:54

Thanks for an interesting summary of where we are now. I notice in your options for the future you state:

"The other option is to find more headroom in the classification structure, either by reinvigorating the 2.2 and 3rd classifications in the eyes of employers or bringing in a new classification above the 1st."

Would you not also consider moving to a grade point average system?

A. Wikman
A. Wikman says:
9 July 2019 at 11:09

The problem with over-inflating grades is to also not prepare students for the real world or, potentially worse, lower professional standards in our own field. Being at postgraduate level, I am aware of at least one university who is rumoured to 'push up grades' in order to gain a certain percentage of successful students. It is demoralising and one wonders if this is also to inflate student satisfaction. There is a problematic relationship when universities need high levels of satisfaction and future student employment to compete, yet are also expected to hold down grades at a realistic level.

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